During the spring of 1910, aviation pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright opened the nation’s first civilian flying school on the outskirts of Montgomery, Ala., at what later became Maxwell Air Force Base. Just seven years after their historic first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., the brothers moved south from snowy Dayton, Ohio, to establish their school in the warmer and more hospitable climate of central Alabama.
Now, as the centennial of that founding approaches, Samford University journalism professor Julie Hedgepeth Williams has chronicled the story in a new book, Wings of Opportunity: The Wright Brothers in Montgomery, Alabama, published by NewSouth Books of Montgomery. Publication of the 168-page trade paperback in January of 2010 coincides with the centennial of the founding.
Dr. Williams looks at the short life of the flight school through the eyes of Alabama newspapers, whose reporting and occasional misreporting “reflected the misconceptions, hopes, dreams, and fears about aviation in 1910,” when flight was “untested, unsteady, and unavailable to most people,” she notes. Forward-thinking Montgomerians heralded the school as a way for their city to rise above the shadow of the Civil War, from which the south was only 45 years removed.
“Montgomery in 1910 was attempting to market itself as a progressive city, no longer the cradle of the Confederacy,” Williams said. “City fathers eagerly grabbed hold of the Wright flying school as the way to make this message plain. Even better for Montgomery, the Wright brothers’ patents on the airplane had legally grounded all non-Wright airplanes. For awhile in 1910, the only place anyone could see an airplane in the United States was in Montgomery.”
As a result, she added, local businessmen planned charter tours to bring airplane tourists to Montgomery and set up special shuttle trains to the flying field.
The Wrights were eager to train pilots who would fly in exhibitions and teach airplane buyers how to fly. Wilbur arrived in Montgomery Feb. 15, 1910, to look for a suitable location for their airfield. He found it west of the city on the plantation of Frank Kohn, and work began clearing a landing strip and building a hangar. The Wright flyer was shipped to Montgomery in seven large crates, arriving March 15, and the first flight occurred March 26.
After a string of repair problems and weather delays because of high winds, the flight school finally got under way. Students were taught how to manipulate the engine and levers that would make the aircraft turn, climb and descend. But mechanical breakdowns and high winds continued to plague the flyers, and ultimately, the school became a short-lived venture.
The Wrights returned to Dayton in early May to prepare for other exhibition tours that would begin in June, leaving Walter Brookins, the school’s first graduate, to train several other students. The school finally closed May 26, but not before Brookins and his students had accomplished the first night flights in history. Flying activities disappeared in Alabama until World War I brought aviation back to the site that ultimately became Maxwell Field in 1922.
Wings of Opportunity is available beginning in January at bookstores, online retailers and from NewSouth Books at www.newsouthbooks.com.